Why is Sinn Féin so uninterested in North-South cooperation?

If I am surprised at Irish university researchers’ lack of interest in North-South cooperation (see last month’s Note), I am utterly baffled by the lack of interest shown in this essential building block of the Belfast Agreement by the party of militant Northern nationalism, Sinn Féin.

Nobody is surprised that the DUP want to do as little North-South cooperation as possible: this is in their DNA. When Northern Ireland Economy Minister, Arlene Foster, unleashes a tirade in the Assembly against the Irish Government, the IDA, Tourism Ireland, the single energy market and all-island economic strategies (‘My vision is to look up and look out, not to look south’), nobody should be surprised.[i] When DUP ministers and their advisers make difficulties at meetings with Irish ministers or discussions about the affairs of North/South bodies, or put notes from Irish government departments into the interminable internal processes for which the Northern civil service is famous, nobody should be surprised.

What is surprising is that Sinn Féin ministers appear to do little or nothing to counter this minimalism (at best) or obstruction (at worst). Observers of North South Ministerial Council meetings say Sinn Fein ministers allow their DUP colleagues to set the snail’s pace agenda. They have few or no new ideas for North-South cooperation and when they come to North-South meetings they do the business with their DUP and Southern counterparts but little more. I can count the number of recognisable Sinn Féin people who have come to the Centre for Cross Border Studies’ 60 or so conferences and seminars over the past 12 years on the fingers of one hand.

Their failure to push for a meaningful North-South dimension to Northern Ireland’s governance is clearest in the economic sphere. The Executive’s November 2011 Economic Strategy consultation paper does not refer once in any significant way to the North-South or all-island aspects of the North’s economy (other than noting that too many of Northern Ireland’s exports go to Britain and Ireland – instead of further afield – and referring to Ireland’s, and Singapore’s, low corporation tax and pro-business regulatory environment).

Many people were surprised when Sinn Féin did not take the influential Enterprise, Trade and Investment portfolio after last May’s election, even though it was theirs for the taking. I have heard it said that this absence of interest in the economy is partly due to a lack of confidence in economic matters: although the IRA prisoners who became Sinn Féin leaders were famous for their attention to their studies when they were in jail, few studied economics. However I think it is more to do with their reluctance to take the hard economic decisions that Northern Ireland policy-makers – in common with their counterparts everywhere in Europe – will be facing in the coming years. They prefer to remain the party of left-wing protest, albeit from within the governing structure of Northern Ireland.

So why does sensible North-South cooperation for mutual economic benefit, mutual understanding and reconciliation between the people of the two parts of Ireland appear to rank so low in Sinn Féin’s priorities? After some reflection, I suggest five reasons:

The first I have already given: their failure to understand the vital economic dimension of working together in Ireland and how it can bring tangible benefits to the citizens of the whole island. The second is that Sinn Féin was never really wedded to the North-South strand of the Belfast Agreement, which it sees as an SDLP creation.

Third, they see North-South cooperation – the inter-governmental and people-to-people cooperation which is at the heart of ‘Strand Two’ of that Agreement – as a distraction on the road to their ultimate goal: a constitutionally united Ireland. They have never really signed up to John Hume’s hugely demanding and long-term emphasis on uniting the people of Ireland rather than its territory.

Fourth, and linked to this, they remain an old-fashioned nationalist party which does not see jurisdictional boundaries as things to be overcome in the European sense – through economic cooperation and labour mobility, and now common fiscal oversight – but as marks on a map that must be erased by political (and formerly paramilitary) action. They fear that the kind of limited cross-border cooperation currently happening between two mutually respecting administrations in Dublin and Belfast will serve to legitimise the existence of that border. This fear was not assuaged by the findings of last summer’s Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, which reported that only 33% of Northern Catholics wanted Irish unity in the long-term.

Fifth, they are now a major opposition party in the South, snapping at Fianna Fail’s ragged heels. In that role, they don’t want to be seen doing anything that might lead to a North-South success story which the Irish Government could claim as its own.

Ironically, the best news about North-South cooperation in December came from a DUP source. Following the publication of the Compton Review into health and social care in Northern Ireland – which recommended a number of cross-border initiatives in specialist paediatric services and cancer treatment – the pragmatic DUP Health Minister, Edwin Poots, said the Review’s recommendation that Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry should be downgraded could be offset  by the Irish Government helping to finance Daisy Hill so that it could ‘extend its services’ to cover the population on both sides of the border. He said he was having ‘conversations’ with the Irish health authorities about this.[ii]

Andy Pollak

P.S.  Another amendment to a previous Note from the Next Door Neighbours! Last month I was complaining about university researchers’ lack of interest in North-South cooperation. However in research she has been doing for the Irish Department of Education and Skills, my colleague Patricia McAllister has uncovered no fewer than 425 research projects (many of them scientific projects) with partners from universities and institutes of technology in the two Irish jurisdictions (usually as part of wider European consortia). That’s pretty impressive.

[i] Speech  in Northern Ireland Assembly, 17 October 2011

[ii] ‘Newry Hospital’s future may depend on funding from Republic’, Irish Times, 14 December 2011

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.